Liam Payne: Fatherhood, freedom and the truth about me and Cheryl
He has been in the public eye since he was just 14 years old. Now, a decade on, Liam Payne’s life is more newsworthy than ever. Hamish MacBain talks to him about relationships, tabloid scrutiny and his musical ambitions.
What with the endless, half-hourly requests for selfies, you might expect Liam Payne to have his photo face down-pat. But apparently not. As today’s shoot hits the halfway point, he is quizzing our photographer as to the best way to get a good jawline — which is his best side, how far to push out his chin. Part of this, I suspect, is Payne’s natural inclination to endear himself to all present, by involving them as much as possible. He is super-nice, constantly joking around — “Tuesday is crazy sock day!”, “That was almost a Jim Carrey lean, wasn’t it?” — and deploys the old “We’ve met before, right?” trick more than once.
This hyper-affable manner, of course, bespeaks a lifetime spent as an obedient, outwardly eager-to-please cog in a pop juggernaut. But like all the once-Directioners, Payne is also clearly visibly excited by the level of involvement and control a solo career is now affording him. “When you were in the band, it was quite easy to just let things run their course,” he says. “Whereas now it’s a lot more… like even some of the styling on the shoot today, it’s things I would rather pick out and put together. It’s being confident with your eye, finding the right way to express yourself.”
Unlike his former bandmates, who all seemed to have a fairly clear idea of what it was they wanted to do while One Direction are on extended hiatus — Payne, by his own admission, did not. He is still messing around with sounds, songs and ideas.
“I had a producer say to me, ‘I look at Niall and I know Niall’s gonna do this. I look at Harry and I know Harry’s gonna do this. But with you, the range is massive’, which I quite like about myself.” He doesn’t know what his album, due out later this year, will sound like. “There’s gonna be a theme that kind of ties it all together, which maybe is just me. I don’t know.”
Payne is doing more than all right so far. Strip That Down (co-written by Ed Sheeran) arrived in May of last year and remains the best-selling solo single by any of his ‘bros’ (“Over a billion streams or whatever,” he marvels. “That’s mind-blowing to me. I had to write down the number 1,000,000,000 to understand how big it was”).
His next one, Familiar, has Spanish guitar on it and has been timed to come out when the sun does, which automatically means it will be enormous.“At the moment I’m really fortunate because the sound that I’m into is getting really popular in America with the way that hip hop is,” he continues, not incorrectly.
Notoriously, Strip That Down featured the line ‘I used to be in 1D/Now I’m out, free’. But while Payne has war stories about his time as “the chequered shirt guy”, trapped in a hotel room, unable to leave — “There was a time when it really f***ed me up a lot, but I got through that” — he now seems to wear his fame lightly.
He talks with great affection about the band’s six years (“When I think about the numbers that we did, and where we went around the world... I managed to travel the world with these four guys, doing the most crazy job ever”) and about the life it has given him. “I’m starting to have more fun. There was a real phase of keeping my head down, and now I’m thinking, ‘Why am I buying all these flash chains and nice clothes if I’m not going to stand with my head up and be proud of who I’ve become?’”
Payne was late today (“I looked like someone from Castaway this morning, my beard took ages to come off,” he says), and so time is now tight. He asks me to travel with him to his room at The Langham (“The good news about my car is we can smoke in it!”). As we step out of the studio, the doors of a parked car fly open and suddenly a teenage girl and her mother are in front of him. Payne and his team have long given up trying to figure out how on earth 1D fans are able to track his every move — “It’s like f***ing FBI stuff” — and so he makes the girl’s day, admirably, posing for a selfie. “We’ve met before, right?” he says, as the iPhone camera clicks away. In the car, we almost immediately get on to the subject of Cheryl (or “my missus”, as he refers to her) when Payne describes himself as “very fortunate that I partnered up with someone who’s … very understanding with what I do. Because I don’t think anybody else could take it. It’s difficult”.
When I ask him straight out if, in contrast to what all those celebrity magazines and their ‘sources’ are saying, all is well in his personal life, he says that, yes, it is. The Brit awards are still fresh in his mind, where the couple “made the front page of nearly every single newspaper and stuff this week, without trying”. Pictures of them on the red carpet, where the pair were described as “a display for the cameras”. His performance of Fifty Shades Freed theme song For You with Rita Ora was deemed to be toned down due to Cheryl being there.
Again, Payne seems to wear all this stuff lightly, but he admits it has not been smooth sailing. “The funniest thing was, a week before we were getting married. The next week we’re splitting up,” he says. “And the thing for me is, I just like to think we’re somewhere in the middle. You know, we have our struggles — like of course I’m not gonna sit here and say that everything’s absolutely fine and dandy, because of course you go through different things, and that’s what a relationship is. But we go through them together as a family and that’s the most important thing for me. This part of mine and my missus’s relationship was never not going to happen,” he continues.
“People were in f***ing betting shops up and down the country going, ‘Oh, here y’are, I bet that’ll end in f***ing two years,’ d’you know what I mean? That is what it is. But this part of our relationship was never not going to happen, there was always going to be a little bit of tenseness in the way we sort ourselves out, but tell me a relationship in the world that doesn’t go through a spot like that? It’s about whether you make it through or not, together, is the main point there I guess.”
I ask him about one particular story that, days after the Brits, pictured him on a Miami hotel balcony in his boxer shorts with a girl sitting by him. “It was one of my people who works for me, my tour manager, who’s female,” he says. “There were two guys in the right of the photograph, which they cropped out because they’re very crude with those things. But it is what it is. I don’t feel like I need to explain myself in those situations.”
In any case, he says, if he did have something to hide he “wouldn’t be out on the balcony in purple boxers, dancing around the place like a lunatic”. “Like I say, it’s difficult, obviously: having someone else who’s so high-profile in the media pushes everything that I do to another level, and I think it’s weird. I feel like the press are more obsessed with it than the nation are, which is quite funny. There’s a lot going on in the world these days. There’s a lot more things to write about.”
For a year now, he and Cheryl have also had a son, Bear, in their lives, of whom he talks with great affection. The couple are “in full agreement” that Bear should be kept out of the public eye.
The son of a fitter and a nurse from Wolverhampton, Payne, like Cheryl, was extremely young — just 14, in his case — when he first appeared in the public eye, on The X Factor, but “made that choice very much for myself”. He wants his son to be able to do the same. “Rather than being pictured and being put in places, I wanna give him the chance (of a life outside of the public eye). If I take it away from him now, he never has the chance to go back. “
“We just had this massive explosion of impact in the middle of our lives, and we’re trying to blend all that together,” he says of his situation. “And it’s just picking up the pieces, the corner pieces of this puzzle, to make this perfect family life. In every other aspect of the way my life works, everything’s eccentric: you can go out to the shops and buy loads of things or you can go to a random country for the day. It’s all weird, so why would my relationship ever blend in to what society thinks anyway? Because the whole of my life is nuts. So it’s just putting all of that bag of nuts-ness together and making it work.” It is, he says, “about making it work for us, not making it work how people think it should work”.
At lunchtime the next day I arrive at a west London rehearsal studio. A troupe of dancers is busy formation-gyrating around to Strip That Down in preparation for that night’s Global Music Awards, but Payne has been delayed by the snow. When he arrives he gives me a hug and, over more probably not-really-allowed Marlboro Lights at the back of the kitchen, begins telling me about his night-in at home in Surrey on “solo duties with The Sunshine”.
Cheryl was out, he says, and he doesn’t “like to bother her when she’s out” with new-dad questions such as, “What time’s the bloody bottle? Is it half past seven or seven o’clock?” Fortunately, Bear was “straight out to sleep, slept all through to six o’clock this morning”. At which point his dad got up and decided it was time for a little bit of mischief. “I semi did it on purpose because I knew what would happen,” Payne says of the Instagram Story he posted upon waking today. “It was snowing and I just said, ‘Oh it’s definitely not Miami here’. That’s all I said. And then in the papers it’s ‘Liam Payne moans about being home with Cheryl!’. And I was like, ‘F**ck off!’” he continues, beaming now. “Like, I knew it was coming... and I was right!”
These do not seem to me like the actions of a man trying to hide a dark truth of his relationship. And once again, Payne is charming, full of energy, rattling off all kinds of funny stories. Like the time in LA when he swapped 1D’s standard-issue blacked-out escalades for a less conspicuous Lamborghini with the top down, and went unnoticed for the whole day. Or when his friend, the blockbuster hit machine singer Charlie Puth, was late to meet him, so he decided to go and break into his house and found him Facetiming hip-hop megastar Post Malone.
In two weeks’ time, following his performance at Commonwealth Day and Prince Harry’s raised eyebrow reaction to it, he will be all over the papers. Again. For now, today, he is excited about the awards tonight, about his solo career kicking off in earnest, about life in general. “I have a plan,” he tells me, “and the hardest part of that plan is helping somebody else” — he means Cheryl — “with what their plan is. To mix the two together” — he means his work/life balance — “is the main thing for me. I have a vision of how this is supposed to go. I had a vision for how this would be, and it doesn’t not match up to any of it, in any way. I think my instincts are quite good in that respect.” Payne heads off to rehearse in the next room and I stay in the kitchen and finish my tea. As I’m heading out, he is in full flow, battling through a sore throat. I don’t want to distract him, so I creep around the side of the dance floor. But he spots me and, mid-chorus, heads over for one last fist bump, singing as he goes. It seems a good way to leave him.
Liam Payne’s new single, Familiar, is out April 20. His debut album will be released later this year